law, true crime

A routine traffic stop turns deadly… and now a man is on death row…

Yesterday, while we were waiting for Arran’s chemo appointment, I found myself watching a video about a true crime that happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma on June 29, 2020. I didn’t seek out this video and, in fact, hadn’t even heard of this case before yesterday. I landed on this video entirely by chance, and was about halfway through it before I realized how shocking this case is. It made me realize why police work is so very dangerous, even when it seems like a traffic stop is totally mundane.

It was about 3:00 am on that fateful June night. David Anthony Ware was driving a car that had expired tags. He also ran a stop sign and failed to yield to Officer Aurash Zarkeshan, who then turned on his lights to signal to Ware that he was being stopped. David Ware pulled over, and Officer Zarkeshan began to question him, asking for identification, proof of insurance, and other information. At first, the stop seems to be going on in a routine manner, although Ware is clearly eager to be on his way.

Zarkeshan checks Ware’s background and finds that he has a police record and is a convicted felon, which Ware claims was supposed to be expunged. Soon, Sergeant Craig Johnson is on the scene. Zarkeshan asks Ware to step out of the vehicle. Ware then becomes agitated and uncooperative. He demands to speak to Zarkeshan’s supervisor, who happens to be Sergeant Johnson. Johnson identifies as Zarkeshan’s boss, and demands that Ware get out of the car. Ware continues to refuse to get out of the vehicle, so Johnson starts to yell at him, his voice growing more and more forceful and angry. He threatens to use his Taser and Mace. In spite of that, Ware doesn’t comply, probably because he was a convicted felon, and he knew that if he got out of the car, the police would find his gun, and that would mean going to jail. If he was under the influence of drugs, that might have also contributed to his mental state.

I heard Sergeant Johnson’s insistent shouts turn to screams, as he uses profanity and deploys the Taser. Somehow, the device doesn’t manage to stun Ware into compliance, and neither does the Mace. Ware had prior drug charges and given that the Taser and spray weren’t effective, my guess is that he was under the influence of drugs during that stop. That would have also made him dangerous behind the wheel.

Ware then gets on his phone and calls his friend, Matt, who shows up as the traffic stop is truly escalating and both cops are trying to force Ware to get out of the car as he screams for help. Unfortunately, the police officers were so focused on getting Ware out of the car and Ware’s friend, Matt, on the scene, that they didn’t see Ware reach under the driver’s seat and pull out a handgun. Ware was able to fire a few rounds into the officers before they knew what happened. In the below video, the visuals are thankfully redacted, but you can hear Johnson start to say, “What the fuck.” as he realizes he’s been shot at close range. Ware shoots him again in the head. Zarkeshan was also severely wounded, but not killed, as Ware jumps into Matt’s car and leaves the two police officers for dead.

Ware’s friend, Matthew Hall, was charged with two counts of being an accessory to a shooting with intent to kill. He pled not guilty. Last year, Mr. Hall was convicted of both charges. He is now serving twenty-four years in prison. Prior to June 29, 2020, Mr. Hall had no criminal history. It just goes to show how, in a moment of poor judgment, a person’s life can be changed forever.

In May of 2022, Mr. Ware was convicted of the capital charge, first degree murder and shooting with intent to kill. He was also found guilty of shooting with intent to kill, possession of a firearm after former felony conviction, unlawful possession of a controlled drug with intent to distribute, and obstruction. I assume that “shooting with intent to kill” is separate from the capital charge, since a person can shoot another person, intending to kill them, but not actually succeeding in killing them. Ware did kill Sergeant Johnson, but he did not succeed in killing Officer Zarkeshan, hence the separate charge for his crime against the surviving officer.

At the end of Ware’s trial in April 2022, the jury recommended the death penalty. Judge William LaFortune agreed, and in May, Ware was sentenced to death, as well as life in prison for the shooting with intent to kill charge, 30 years for possession of a firearm after former felony conviction, 25 years for the drug possession charge, and one year for obstruction. There are also massive fines, which will probably never be collected. Ware was already scheduled for the death chamber in August of this year, but as is standard in these cases, there’s an automatic appeal. Ware’s attorney, Kevin Adams, filed documents in support of overturning the verdict. He said that in Oklahoma, there’s about a 50 percent rate of overturning death penalty punishments, while the prosecutor said that he hoped the penalty would “deter people” from disobeying law enforcement and using firearms against them.

Special thanks to the Line of Duty channel for sharing this video.

I played this video for Bill last night. Bill was horrified for the cops involved, and although he is mostly against the death penalty, he said he felt it might be justified in this case. Personally, I disagree, because I am more against the death penalty than my husband is. I really think it should be reserved for cases in which a person represents a truly severe danger to the public, such that releasing that person will result in more people being killed. Frankly, I would be more inclined to sentence someone like Darrell Brooks to death than David Ware. Brooks, to me, has obvious disdain for other people and clearly has no sorrow for what he did. He also killed more people in a less humane way, and injured dozens more people. That mindset won’t be fixed with rehab. I don’t think Brooks can redeem himself, as being the way he is is likely due to his personality. Ware, on the other hand, might be salvageable if he got clean.

Mr. Ware does not strike me as being as obviously cold and callous as Brooks is. Even though he could have avoided the escalation simply by complying with the cops, I can hear genuine fear and anguish in his voice as he screams for help. According to the US News & World Report:

“The truth is that when David Ware shot Officer Zarkeshan and Sgt. Johnson, he was in fear for his life,” Ware’s attorney Kevin Adams said. “Sgt. Johnson and Officer Zarkeshan beat David Ware, they kicked David Ware, they tased David Ware, they maced David Ware as he pleaded and begged for somebody to help him.

“And when it got to the point that he felt that he was about to lose his life, he shot Officer Zarkashan and he shot Sgt. Craig Johnson.”

Ware said that he meant to shoot the officers in their body armor in the hopes it would incapacitate them long enough for him to escape. But then he shot Sergeant Johnson in the head after both officers were on the ground.

Having watched and listened to the video a few times, I can agree with Kevin Adams that Ware “lost it” and the crime escalated because he feared for his life. Yes, he absolutely should have complied with the officers, and he should certainly be in prison for the rest of his life. But Ware probably hadn’t planned to hurt or kill anyone that night. He committed a driving infraction and was pulled over, and if his luck had been better, he would have gone home without taking anyone’s life. When he was threatened by the police officers, he probably did literally fear for his life. I’m not saying it was a credible fear that Ware would be killed by the cops, but I believe that he did experience that fear, and that influenced his extreme actions.

Darrell Brooks, on the other hand, clearly meant to hurt and kill people when he drove his SUV into a parade route at speeds up to 30 miles per hour. What he did was clearly premeditated, and he obviously had no fear or remorse whatsoever. He’s a very callous individual who seems to hate the world. To me, that indicates that Brooks is a lot more dangerous than Ware is. I think he would be a better candidate for execution than Ware is.

However, unlike Brooks, David Ware committed his crime in a red state, where the death penalty is strongly supported by the citizenry. He also killed a police officer, and in a lot of death penalty states, that will result in a death sentence. I doubt the death penalty in this case will deter anyone, though. These types of crimes often happen when someone is highly emotional and not thinking clearly. What might make this type of crime less likely to happen is if the United States got much more serious about gun control and limiting public access to weapons. But that will probably never happen in my lifetime. Even if it did, there are so many guns out there that it probably would take a long time before the public’s access to them would be diminished enough to make a difference.

I feel very sorry for Sergeant Johnson’s family, especially his wife and two children. He was clearly a brave man, and it’s obvious from the video that he didn’t want to use the Taser. He gave Mr. Ware multiple opportunities to comply, and warned him several times before deploying the Taser. Maybe it would have been better if he had been a little bit colder, and not given Ware a chance to prepare before popping him with the Taser. But I’m not a cop, so I really don’t know. And again, as is obvious from the video, there was a lot of emotion going on at the time of the shootings. All three of the men engaged in that fight were operating on high adrenaline and instinct, rather than rational thought. It’s truly a terrible thing that it turned out this way, as three men’s lives were forever altered and shortened, and one man’s life was ended way before his time should have been up.

Anyway… given how the death penalty is, my guess is that David Ware still has some time to spend thinking about what he’s done. I don’t think he intended to be a murderer, even though that’s how it worked out for him. If he hadn’t had a handgun in his car, he almost surely wouldn’t be on death row in Oklahoma. Darrell Brooks, on the other hand, strikes me as someone who would easily kill again if he ever walks free. Hopefully, the state of Wisconsin will keep Brooks put away for the rest of his life. And I have no doubt that Ware’s days as a free man are over, and he probably will be executed as planned.

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